Hidden historical heroines (#03: Isabella MacDuff)

Isabella MacDuff (c. 1285 – c. 1313) is a heroine of the Wars of Scottish Independence, a series of military campaigns between the English and the Scottish in the latter part of the 13th and early part of the 14th centuries. She was the daughter of the Earl of Fife and became the Countess of Buchan by marriage.

Only months after Isabella was likely born, the Scottish king Alexander III died, leaving as his heir his four year old granddaughter, Mairead, the “Maid of Norway”. Mairead was a Princess of Norway, the daughter of Eric II and Mairead/Margaret, Alexander III’s daughter.

Her panel of regents – the “Guardians of Scotland” – agreed in 1290 that Margaret should marry one Edward of Caernarvon, the son of England’s Edward I. The Scots insisted, however, that this marriage did not create a union between the two hostile countries; Scotland was to continue to be considered wholly and legally separate from England.

Little Mairead set off to journey from Norway to her new kingdom; she landed on the Orkney Islands in September 1290 and promptly died, leaving thirteen rival heirs to the Scottish throne. The two major challengers were Robert Bruce, 5th Lord of Annandale (grandfather of the future King Robert the Bruce) and John Balliol, Lord of Galloway. Fearing the civil war that was brewing between these two great Lords, the Guardians of Scotland wrote to Edward I, asking for him to mitigate. Edward I agreed, on the proviso that he be recognised as the ‘Lord Paramount of Scotland’. With no leader, no army, and all of its nobility at one another’s throats, Scotland had no choice but to agree to this unpalatable demand.

Edward moved swiftly, demanding homage and taking control of Scotland’s royal castles and estates; he did, however, take the matter of arbitration between Balloil and Bruce seriously, and managed the debate well. John Balloil was eventually declared King in 1292, however it was clear that Edward I firmly considered Scotland a vassal state. Balloil was instructed to provide men and finance for England’s war with France. However, he decided to throw in his lot with France (honouring the ‘auld alliance’ between the two countries). Edward I duly declared war on Scotland. Thus began the Wars of Scottish Independence  (of ‘Braveheart’ fame: “FREEEEEEDOM!”).

In 1296, John Balloil abdicated the throne after an embarrassing run of military defeats. Edward I had removed the ‘Stone of Destiny’ from Scone Abbey, the stone upon which the monarchs of Scotland had been crowned since time immemorial. Scotland finally seemed to have been conquered, and the war settled down to an uneasy simmer.

The Stone of Destiny was kept in Westminster Abbey thereafter, and was incorporated into the coronations of the English – and then British – Kings and Queens. Since 1996 however it has been returned to Scotland and is kept in Edinburgh Castle, with provision to transport it back to London when it is required for the next monarch’s coronation ceremony.

Back to the marvellous Isabella. Although Isabella’s natural father died when she was very young, her mother remarried a Scottish Lord who was allied to the Bruce family. This – coupled with the fact that the Bruces were cousins to Isabella – shows how she grew up with an intense patriotism to Scotland and its independence and an equally strong loyalty to the claim of the Bruces.

Unfortunately for Isabella, she was married off to John Comyn, the Earl of Buchan. Not only was Comyn about three times her age, but he was a supporter of the English AND his family were cousins to Balliol and heredity enemies to the Bruces. Hardly a match made in heaven. Myth holds that Isabella and the young Robert the Bruce were lovers, so to be shackled to someone who was pretty much the antithesis of him would have been torturous for Isabella.

Robert had not given up his hopes of the throne. In 1306 he met with his rival, John Comyn (a cousin of, not to be confused with, Isabella’s husband). Their plan was to discuss who between them was best to lead Scotland, then the other would renounce their claims and offer their full support. It appeared, however, that Comyn had betrayed Bruce to the English, as a letter from him informing Edward I was intercepted. Robert slew the traitorous Comyn, uncaring in his rage that they were standing on the holy ground of the Kirk of Greyfriars Dumfries.

Knowing that he would become immediately excommunicated once the Pope heard of this murder, Robert had to act decisively. An excommunicated man can never be crowned King, so he had no choice but to try and outrun the speed of the news. He dashed for Scone Abbey, knowing that although the Stone of Destiny was gone, he still needed the legitimacy of tradition.

Isabella was in London when she heard the news. Another part of the Scottish coronation tradition was that the crown be placed on the monarch’s head by the reigning Earl of Fife, the representative of Clan MacDuff, one of the oldest (and first to be legally recognised) clans of Scotland. The Earl of Fife was Isabella’s younger brother Duncan, who had been a ward of the English court since their father’s death. He grew up a contemporary of the prince (the future Edward II) and it is probably unsurprising that he may have held English sympathies. Either way, it was clear he could not travel to Scone to crown Robert the Bruce.

Legend has it that Isabella immediately made for Westminster Abbey, where she laid her hands on the pilfered Stone of Destiny where it lay installed underneath the throne. She then stole her husband’s fastest horse and made for Scotland, the willing representative of Clan MacDuff.

Whether or not the poignant image of Isabella touching the Stone to imbue its power within her, and her headlong race on a stolen horse is true, we know for a fact that she arrived at Scone Abbey the day after Robert had been crowned Robert I. Robert was more than happy to go through the ceremony again and was duly crowned by a MacDuff.

Obviously Isabella could not return to her home and husband after such an obvious and devastating act of defiance to England’s cause. She was assimilated into Robert’s household. Only months after the crowing at Scone however, Robert was defeated at the Battle of Methven, so he made the decision to send Isabella and the rest of his female relatives north to safety. Isabella travelled with Robert’s wife and queen, Elizabeth de Burgh, his young daughter Marjory (from his first marriage) and his two sisters Christian and Mary. The women were betrayed by the Earl of Ross and given over to the clutches of Edward I.

The severity of Isabella’s action in crowning and giving legitimacy to Robert the Bruce is illustrated in the harshness of her punishment. Edward II ordered her to be sent to the castle at Berwick-upon-Tweed with these instructions: “Let her be closely confined in an abode of stone and iron made in the shape of a cross, and let her be hung up out of doors in the open air at Berwick, that both in life and after her death, she may be a spectacle and eternal reproach to travellers.”

Isabella was imprisoned in this cage for at least four years. Although she had a privy and two maids to bring her food, she was exposed to the elements and the ridicule of the English. Perhaps most painfully of all – as Berwick was the most north-eastern town of England – she was left eternally looking out into her beloved Scotland where her king continued to fight against the yoke of the English, knowing that she may never be free to return to him.

After four years, Isabella was removed from the cage and given over to a friary. By this point, Robert was at his height in terms of power and support, so keeping his female relatives alive and well was a tactical rather than a humanitarian move. However when Robert’s female relatives were returned to him in 1313 – during a hostage exchange for English nobleman taken after the Battle of Bannockburn – Isabella is not mentioned, suggesting that by this time she had died, perhaps – as she was still a relatively young woman – of the trials and stress her body had endured whilst hanging from the walls of Berwick Castle. Either way, she certainly deserves the accolade of a Scottish martyr and heroine.

Robert the Bruce went on to force the English to sign a treaty recognising Scottish independence in 1328. His son and heir, David (II), married the sister of Edward III and there was peace between Scotland and England – for a time… However, whilst there were skirmishes and rebellions throughout the early reign of David II, Scotland remained an independent nation right up until the unification of Great Britain in 1707, and I’m sure Isabella would have been proud to know that her great act of defiance helped lead Scotland to freedom.


Books about Isabella:

‘Kingdom of Shadows’ by Barbara Erskine
‘Proud Lady In A Cage’ by Fred Urquhart
The Bruce Trilogy’ by Nigel Tranter


3 thoughts on “Hidden historical heroines (#03: Isabella MacDuff)

  1. Steeleye Span has a wonderful song about her call Isabel on their album Back In Line. ” I lie this cage in full public gaze and I don’t give a pin for all their scorn. For I’ve crowned my lover king ah such glorious days I’ve seen, give me the chance I’d do it all again !”

  2. Pingback: Isabella MacDuff: The Badass Countess of Buchan – Herstory for the modern girl.

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